Strategies for Engaging Students in Research and Dissemination

During the Innovation Room of the Centre of Education and Learning on 11 November 2016, Helen Walkington, Principal Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University, presented strategies for engaging students in research and dissemination.  This article contains a summary and video of her presentation.

The research-teaching nexus has several levels:

  • Research led: the students are gathering information on existing research;
  • Research tutored:the students are exploring other people's ideas;
  • Research oriented: the students are evidencing and developing own ideas;
  • Research based: the students make their own discoveries, and feel free and empowered.

One of Helen Walkington's students did a research on the carbon footprint of TESCO onions from New Zealand, Spain and England. The results could've been of interest to TESCO, consumers and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. Instead, the research was graded and now sits on a shelf collecting dust. Students usually don't get the opportunity to refine, publish of share their research with a greater audience.

Walkington compares the degree to which a research is shared beyond the curriculum with the aperture of a photographic lens:

  • Aperture 1: sharing with next year's cohort. For example: a couple of students formed a Student Theatre Appreciation Society, in which they discussed theatre and performance art. Instead of just sharing their thoughts among eachother, they started a blog with theatre reviews.
  • Aperture 2: sharing with the discipline. For example: chemist Hasok Chang turned his undergraduate class into a research community. Together they studied chlorine. Each year’s students improved and expanded on the work of the previous year. This led to a full-blown academic textbook on the subject.
  • Aperture 3: a public blog for the local community. For example: the year one architecture and interior architecture BA students at Oxford Brookes launched a tutor-mediated blog (OB1) about their work and projects.
  • Aperture 4: a multidisciplinary national conference. For example: the British Conference of Undergraduate Research (BCUR), which invites undergraduate students to present their work to a multidisciplinary crowd.
  • Aperture 5: international competitions and conferences. For example: the Formula Hybrid Competition, an interdisciplinary design and engineering challenge. Undergraduates and graduates are asked to design and build a hybrid racecar.

In 2007, Walkington launched a undergraduate research journal: Geoverse. Post-graduates would give feedback to undergraduates, and the best research work could be published. This gave undergraduates a sense of ownership, a better understanding of the subject and a sense of creativity. Within the curriculum, they also learned applying constructive criticism and critical evaluation. Beyond the curriculum, they reported that they gained a desire for further dialogue about their research, academic recognition and the motivation to publish more work.

However, as one of Walkington's students indicated, the journal lacked the possibility of further dialogue. This is why several conferences were held to offer students a platform to present their research results to a diverse audience. This made undergraduates step out of the bubble of their own discipline and reconsider the importance of their work.

What is it about the research that makes it interesting? And what makes it important for other people? By talking to people outside of their discipline, the students got a better understanding of their own work. There was only one problem: the feedback and new insights came too late to have an impact on the students' mark.

According to Walkington, the key solving this issue is dialogic feedforward (instead of just feedback). "If we expect students to become researchers, we should treat them as such from day one."